Review: Warlock #1-4

Like many of Marvel’s b-list Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations, Adam Warlock has remained something of an enigma – a putative fan favorite that has never been able to sustain a solo title. An interesting character in search of a re-interpretation that unlocks its true potential.

While this new spin by Greg Pak and Charlie Adlard doesn’t come close to Alan Moore’s now-legendary take on Swamp Thing, it had some potential to at least make an ongoing Warlock series worth killing some trees for. Taking his original genesis as the secret project of a group of scientists seeking to create the ultimate weapon, Pak updates it as a quest to right the world’s wrongs by creating a savior for the failure that is the human race.

Inexplicably cancelled after the second issue shipped – presumably shortening the story arc from the standard six issues to four – an interesting premise and solid presentation are ultimately undone by a loopy, seemingly contradictory triple-cross, Wha…huh?!?! conclusion that feels more like a beginning than an ending.

Janie Chin, art student in an unclear-how-far-in-the-not-too-distant-future New York City, is hired by Beehive Productions to revise the design of the lead character for their “big superhero movie,” a super-being artificially-created by a secret group of scientists called The Enclave to “save humanity from self-destruction and establish a utopian dictatorship to rule the world.” Chosen because she was the only applicant “to show a complete understanding of the cultural, historical, emotional, and visceral impact this design must have,” she works from what she’s told is the original design for the character – which is, in fact, the original Adam Warlock of regular Marvel continuity, suggesting that either he never existed in this storyline and it doesn’t take place in regular continuity, or…um, that she’s just too young to remember him? While I’m not a big stickler for continuity, especially in a story where even the “when” is vague, this becomes an important question later in the story.

Janie quickly realizes her design isn’t for a movie character at all because Beehive Productions is revealed to actually be The Enclave, and her design is for a new version of their Warlock project, one with the same power of the original but with the understanding that one lacked. And, of course, “the cultural, historical, emotional, and visceral impact [it] must have.”

The new Adam Warlock is “a vengeful god…[with] the heart of a man,” the mysterious Mr. Smith, Janie’s champion at the Beehive/Enclave, explains to her at the end of the second issue. His new look, solidly presented by the talented Adlard – featuring an odd costume that makes a bit more sense in the final issue – updates Warlock’s dated look, though in more of a standard super-heroish way than the described “savior whose visage is both terrifying and inspiring.”

In the third issue, Janie witnesses first-hand Warlock’s destructive capability, his “vengeful god” act, but finds him lacking in “the heart of a man” department and tries to reason with him, to appeal to a sense of compassion he wasn’t programmed with – in fact, he has a fail-safe device disguised as a bindi to prevent such compassion – and when that doesn’t work, vows to stop him herself.

Then the final issue comes along and shakes up everything we’ve seen in the first three issues, so much so that if Marvel had pretended they never existed and simply released an expanded 48-page stand-alone issue, compressing a few of those earlier moments into a five-page introduction to properly set the stage, they might have had something good on their hands.

Instead, we get confusion and contradictions, as the mysterious Mr. Smith turns out to be…

Despite the fact that I’m probably one of only a few thousand readers that followed the series through to the end – even Midtown Comics only had about 15 copies of the final issue on the racks Wednesday afternoon, and they order a ton of everything! – I still won’t spoil anything here as his identity is a key element of the “surprise” ending. Suffice to say that that revelation, along with a couple of others in the final issue, confuse or contradict much of what came before it, not the least of which is Janie’s boyfriend, Danny, and his two-page appearance at the beginning of the third issue. More than Mr. Smith, the truth about Danny’s character, a major twist in the final issue, comes not from left field but rather from the parking lot. Of a whole ‘nother stadium. In a completely different city!

As much as I generally liked the potential suggested in the first three issues, I have to wonder if Pak had something else in mind for this arc, if the unexpected cancellation and seemingly rushed conclusion forced him to drastically alter the ending of the story and he did what he could to connect as many dots as possible in the limited space he had left. Instead, the fact that there’s one major clue to the ending in the first issue makes we wonder if this was simply another ill-conceived high-concept that hit a sudden roadblock and Marvel wisely cut bait and moved on. Perhaps looking to completely wash their hands of it, Warlock #4 only shows up on their web site via a Google search as it’s not listed with their releases for the week. Apparently denial is the ultimate weapon.

Warlock #1-4 (Marvel, $2.99/ea); Story by Greg Pak, Art by Charlie Adlard.

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